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Novelist Cristina Henriquez: Immigrants As ‘Unknown Americans’

Image: The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez Knopf

“We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.” So says one of the characters in Cristina Henriquez’ novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans.”

Her look at the intertwined lives of Latino immigrants in Delaware earned a spot on the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2014” list, while The Washington Post wrote that her novel “leaves you in thrall to its vivid characters and its author’s sure hand.” Told from multiple points of view, Henriquez’ novel offers a star-crossed romance as well as a nuanced depiction of the immigrant experience.

Henriquez, 37, is the author of “The World In Half” and has been published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She recently spoke with NBC News about the inspiration behind her acclaimed novel, which is available in English and Spanish.

NBC: How did your own family’s experiences shape “The Book of Unknown Americans?”

CH: My dad is from Panama, he came to the U.S. in 1971. He came to study chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. He thought he would go back and then he met my mom here. I was born and mostly raised in Delaware. One time, my mom and I were talking about how immigration is portrayed in the media, and she commented that, “no one is ever going to ask about our stories.” That was sort of my jumping-off point. I saw firsthand some of the struggles that my dad went through, like the longing to go home, that sense of existing between two cultures, being self-conscious about his accent. I thought it would be interesting to explore all of those everyday experiences in a book. I also wanted to show that Latinos are not one monolithic entity, so I have characters from throughout Latin America.

NBC: Given the ongoing immigration debate, did you set out to write a social commentary?

CH: Not at all. Certainly, I read a lot and follow the news. But as a writer, I am not interested in a political story. I am searching for the humanity of the characters. I never set out to write a book about an “issue.” This was never a story about immigration; it is a book about immigrants. Immigration is a system, and immigrants are people. I just tried to focus on bringing people to life.

NBC: Can you tell us about how you became a professional writer?

CH: I didn’t know until high school that I was interested in writing in any real way. But there was this boy that I had a crush on, and I used to tell him all the time what I felt about him. Finally he gave me a blank journal and said to write it all down – and it didn’t take me very long to realize how much I loved writing. I wrote in that journal for a year, and I never gave it back to him. Then I applied to the writing program at Northwestern, and I was rejected. I was so embarrassed and devastated but I applied again and I got in. The same thing happened when I first applied to grad schools, I was rejected. Through it all, I just kept practicing my writing and trying to improve. I went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop, which was a great experience. I’ve learned that you just have to keep putting in the time, and eventually you will get to the point where you are writing the kind of stuff you like.

Image: Cristina Henriquez
Cristina Henriquez, author of the recently published and highly acclaimed novel "The Book Of Unknown Americans," which chronicles the intertwined lives of immigrants in Delaware. Michael Lionstar

NBC: How have readers responded to your book?

CH: I think that people see themselves in some of my characters. People have been very positive in their response and that is humbling to me. Readers have told me that it means a lot to them to read about people like themselves, and that is overwhelming to me. Because years ago, I felt that when I was reading on my own and first discovered Sandra Cisneros. To feel that I am now, in some way, part of that tradition myself is wonderful. To hear from young people, that they are affected by my writing, that is huge.

NBC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

CH: I used to say, read as much as you can. Now I say, read the best that you can, the stories that resonate with you, the books that are important to you. Try to read, not only as a reader, but also as a writer, to deconstruct how the author is telling his or her story. The other thing is, stop thinking about being published! Resist the temptation to think about what the market wants, or how to become successful. Back away, do the work, and eventually when your work is strong enough, then your writing will be recognized. My writing students come to me with anxiety about being published, and I tell them that it doesn’t really matter how fast you write or how quickly you get published. It matters how well you write.